Saturday, June 19, 2010
By Dan Majors, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Frustrated fans pleading for something -- anything -- to be done to stop the Pirates' losing ways are likely to find little to cheer about in the baseball team's latest move.
They fired a pierogi.
Andrew Kurtz, 24, of New Brighton, one of the 18 men who take turns posing as pierogies in a crowd-pleasing race after the fifth inning of every game at PNC Park, was dismissed by the team Thursday because he posted disparaging remarks about the Pirates on his Facebook page.
"My son always was a big Pirates fan," said his mother, Mary Kurtz. "He took pride in being a pierogi runner. Since when, in this country, are you not allowed to state an opinion? Well, here is my opinion: The Pirates came through again and let go one of their biggest fans and dedicated workers."
The Pirates introduced The Great Pittsburgh Pierogi Race N'at, inspired by the sausage races conducted by the Milwaukee Brewers, at Three Rivers Stadium in 1999. Four runners, costumed as pierogies, dash along the outfield warning track to break through a finish line of balloons, then exit into the ballpark seating area, where they greet fans.
Sponsored by Mrs. T's Pierogis, the promotion features Cheese Chester in yellow, Sauerkraut Saul in red, Oliver Onion in purple and Jalapeno Hannah in green. One of the original pierogies, the blue Potato Pete, was retired a few years ago, but occasionally makes surprise appearances.
Kids love the event and the team has responded with pierogi-character beanbags, windup cars and other toys given away through the season. The mascots even travel to other cities' ballparks and make frequent appearances at events around town.
Mr. Kurtz became a pierogi two years ago when a friend told him about tryouts. He made the team, joining other men ranging from their early 20s to a 48-year-old runner who has been a pierogi since the beginning. There have been women runners in the past, but none this season, he said.
Sometimes the Pirates will permit outside organizations or groups to buy the right to run a race, but those occasions are rare.
"It's a blast," Mr. Kurtz said. "You pick out which eye you want to look through and just goof around and be stupid. No one knows it's you. You run your race and afterward you go up in the crowd and high-five people. They take pictures. It's a great time."
There isn't a lot of dough involved in being a pierogi. Runners are paid $25 per race and, because of road games and the rotation, Mr. Kurtz said he only participated about four times a month. There are other perks, however, including tickets to games and $50 for public appearances, such as a visit Mr. Kurtz made as a pierogi two weeks ago to Shaler Area Middle School.
Like many people, Mr. Kurtz, who described himself as a lifelong, die-hard Pirates fan, has a Facebook page, where he occasionally would bemoan the team's misfortunes. But he never named names before.
Thursday, at 4:30 p.m., he posted a message aimed at team president Frank Coonelly, general manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell. It read: "Coonelly extended the contracts of Russell and Huntington through the 2011 season. That means a 19-straight losing streak. Way to go Pirates."
Within four hours, he received a call from Dan Millar, the Pirates' mascot coordinator.
"He called as the game was going on," Mr. Kurtz said. "He wanted to know what was up with my Facebook message. I told him I didn't mean anything by it, and he was like, 'Well, why'd you put it up?' I said, it was just an opinion. But he took it negative and talked to his boss. And then they wanted me to turn my uniform in."
A pierogi's uniform consists of black Spandex pants and a shirt, which Mr. Kurtz turned in Friday.
"I apologized and asked for a second chance, but he did not take my apology," Mr. Kurtz said. "He was like, 'Nah, it's too late.' "
Pirates spokesman Brian Warecki on Friday night said, "While we cannot discuss the specifics of the dismissal, we can say that a part-time employee serving a suspension for a previous violation of company policy was terminated for committing yet another violation of company policy."
Mr. Kurtz said the previous violation involved a miscommunication regarding his work schedule. But there's always trouble when you burn a pierogi. Mr. Kurtz's mother contacted the news media to express her anger.
"I think it was very unfairly done," Mrs. Kurtz said. "If they thought that what he said was wrong, they could have just said, 'Look, take it off Facebook.' And then let it go."
Mr. Kurtz, who over the past season-and-a-half has posed as all four pierogies, said he would miss it.
"The kids really get into it," he said. "They want to hug. Even the parents are like, 'Wow, it's a pierogi, that's so cool. I want to get my picture taken.'
"When the Pirates are playing bad, people still want to see that pierogi race. I've heard people say, 'That's the only reason we stayed at the game. We wanted to see the pierogi race.' "
After each race, the Pirates post on the scoreboard the "standings" numbering the wins recorded by each pierogi. According to Mr. Kurtz, the races are not, in fact, always fixed.
"They try to keep it close," he said. "They don't want a pierogi to fall too far behind. So if Jalapeno Hannah is two, three games behind, they kind of want her to win, so they pick the fastest runner out of the four runners that are racing that night and give Hannah to that one."
All races are choreographed to an extent, Mr. Kurtz said, but there is room for ad-libbing, particularly with the Pirate Parrot.
As far as having a favorite pierogi, Mr. Kurtz said he was partial to Sauerkraut Saul.
"I like the red," he said. "Saul's just the guy."
Mr. Kurtz said Oliver Onion has those giant goofy glasses, and Cheese Chester has a frown on his face that prompts kids to ask "Why aren't you happy?" There is an upside to being Jalapeno Hannah: You get to carry a purse.
"That's the only thing good about her, because you can whack the other pierogies," Mr. Kurtz said.
Asked if he'd learned anything during his time as a pierogi -- or as an employee of the Pittsburgh Pirates -- Mr. Kurtz was ready with a response.
"Don't post personal thoughts about the boss or whoever I work for," he said. "Just keep quiet."